My Tricoastal Media Map

This week at the All Things D D9 conference, I found myself telling people that lately I’ve been “tricoastal.”  It’s a codeword I’m enjoying for the rotation I have been doing between the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York.  I seem to run between the three of them continually, as I’m trying to put together my best thinking about the future of media.  And, despite the time, expense, and hassle of the travel, I keep finding that blending the three of them is far more powerful than if I spent time in any one of them.  And if I didn’t visit all three frequently, I wouldn’t just be facing the catastrophic loss of super elite status on multiple airliner, nor innumerable calls from my mother asking “where are you and are you wearing a sweater??”.  Far worse, I’d be missing an accurate picture of media.

My company, Wetpaint, has its roots in Silicon Valley.  The Valley is great for its appreciation of the mechanics of digital media.  In fact, it’s obsessed with them.  The Bay Area practically invented the word “virality,” and it understands distribution – both through search engines and social networks, and from person to person – far better than others.  At least at a mechanical level.  The Bay Area culture is left-brained; it celebrates analytics, tactics, and leverage created by software and automation to get nonlinear results from human efforts.  However, it is blind to the art of content and the realities of the advertising business.  It assumes that both of these can be deconstructed successively into analytical components; that all actors are rational; and that these are systems problems, not human problems.  But these assumptions are all patently false in media.

New York, on the other hand, recognizes the art of editorial and the less predictable, more spontaneous nature of the consumer.  The iconic titles of companies like Conde Nast, and their personality-driven cultures, seem to have established a reverence for the editor-monarch with perfect knowledge, and have embedded a culture of royalty based on editorial superiority that translates into sales prowess.  And that last component is met by New York’s enormous advertising machine, which operates based on a currency of relationships and perks.

But it’s Los Angeles that impresses me even more for being image-obsessed.  Hollywood’s influence seems to understand the value of brands the best – that brands are greater than the sum of their parts.  The LA mentality, however, assumes that content creators have captive distribution – as they do in broadcast and cable TV channel agreements and movie theater agreements.  It assumes that once a brand is launched it becomes a pipe through which you can shove whatever content you want, like a cable channel, as though the lead-in and lead-out are guaranteed.  And it carries an assumption that brand franchises have immense value to be tapped and negotiated by dealmakers.

In truth, digital media doesn’t operate this way.  No distribution is guaranteed.  Just as LA has seen the record companies crumbling under disaggregation, now it is happening to other forms of digital content.  Published content online needs to find its audience one “single” at a time.  The brand value of the collection, while still significant, no longer carries guaranteed distribution online.  And the personalities linked to that content no longer have the star-power that an Anna Wintour or Tina Brown have been able to create in the New York model.

None of which is to say that the Silicon Valley mechanists are right, either.  They aren’t. Their mechanical analysis of the universe doesn’t survive contact with humanity.

Instead, what I love to find every time I tour is how these pieces fit together.

If you’re not practicing the art of content that the New York media is best at, then you are creating a bunch of meaningless drivel that will never deserve the loyalty of a branded relationship.  That branded relationship is the exact mantra of LA’s movie franchise creators; and yet, the distribution mentality of LA (that you can own a captive channel) is all wrong.  Instead, I find that the Silicon Valley mindset of each item needing to find its audience – and then self-lubricate for viral distribution – complements it best.  And this, then, reinforces the fact that it all starts with the NYC notion of content, in contrast to Silicon Valley’s algorithmic bias that it’s all about the technology.

By putting the three together, we end up with a complete picture of media – content, mechanics, and brands all working together – and that combination is one that represents how the audience behaves, with human drives around interest, engagement, and loyalty.

 

 

Let’s Get Real – Blogging Is About Fame, Not Fortune

I have a question for Jonathan Tasini, who is leading a $105 million lawsuit on behalf of thousands of uncompensated bloggers against The Huffington Post.

If you and your litigious colleagues are so good, so valuable, and so organized, why don’t you launch your own online media venture to out-compete HuffPo?

I’m sure you have your reasons – and, of course, initiating a lawsuit is so much easier than starting a digital publishing site from scratch.

But, let’s get real.

Blogging isn’t free-lancing, and it’s hard to imagine that any of the contributors who sent their material to HuffPo ever thought it was. As I wrote several weeks ago, every contributor knew the basis of the transaction: write what you have to say in exchange for being publicized. As always, the prime currency of blogging was fame – not fortune.

So who’s trying to cash in now?

On a broader, more global note: I feel sad for the desperate bloggers who are trying to shake down HuffPo; and I’m deeply sensitive to the fact that  the media world is under pressure and steadily shrinking. But Tasini and his fellow litigants look like starving dogs scrapping for a shred of meat. It’s unseemly and unproductive.

What’s next?

Will Tasini respresent a class action suit against Endemol on behalf of all American Idol contestants, who were totally exploited as they sought super-stardom?

Or will he represent the tens of millions of users in a suit against Facebook, for advertising against their status and Farmville activities?

Both legal moves would make for entertaining blog posts, and I look forward to the juicy reading!

Going Long on the Web

One of the supreme ironies in digital publishing today is that there’s infinite online space, and a desire to read rich and substantive content on mobile devices such as the iPhone or iPad; and yet, there’s still limited long-form multimedia journalism available on the Web.

That’s the subject of a fascinating feature in The New York Times by David Carr.

Always incisive, David focuses on The Atavist, which he describes as “a tiny curio of a business that looks for new ways to present long-form content for the digital age. All the richness of the Web — links to more information, videos, casts of characters — is right there in an app displaying an article, but with a swipe of the finger, the presentation reverts to clean text that can be scrolled by merely tilting the device.”

Since January, The Atavist has had over 40,000 downloads of its app; and it’s also begun conversations with publishers about the possibility of adding nonfiction books to the eclectic mix of stories it now presents.

This nascent success reinforces what I’ve been saying for a long time – give people an enhanced digital content experience, something that’s very special, and they’ll be willing to pay for it.

Good luck to The Atavist, which has the right business model, and the best of reading to all of us.

What’s Really Behind The HuffPo Revolt (Hint: It’s Not About The Money)

I sent the following thoughts to Fred Allen at Forbes.com about how bloggers made The Huffington Post what it ultimately became, and profited all along the way.  For Fred Allen, Lewis DVorkin, and all of Forbes’ leaders, they are taking on the challenge of merging world-class editorial and brand reputation with the new reality that one can’t pretend to serve one’s customers best by writing all the good stuff onself.

Just realizing that the formula needs to change though is only the beginning.  It immediately leads straight to serious questions to conceptualize and implement:  now they have to figure out how to combine two different philosophies – one of proprietary branded editorial, and one of curation.

It’s a live laboratory as we get to see them take on the challenge, even as AOL and Huffington Post have a similar challenge of bringing their own two approaches together.

My comments to Fred are reprinted below; and Fred’s thoughts are here at Forbes.com.

There has been a backlash against Huffington Post in light of its acquisition last week by AOL.

People who were willing to contribute to HuffPo for free are suddenly irritated that the AOL deal creates a payoff for shareholders but not for them.  Since AOL is a publicly held corporate entity, these contributors’ expectations have changed, and now they want to get paid.

It’s a noisy revolt, but I think HuffPo’s dissident contributors are waving spatulas in the air, rather than guns.

Underlying these revisionist claims of exploitation, one thing has been clear from the get-go: The dominant motivation of the bloggers who have posted on Huffington Post has always been far more about narcissism than altruism.

The reason Arianna Huffington was able to attract such thoughtful and provocative bloggers in the first place was because her site is a promotion machine. With each new post and blogger added, Huffington’s creation became a more powerful destination. And that meant that the site was even more attractive to the next potential blogger. The choice for a new contributor was simple: Set up your own blog, and patiently hope you can build audience over a period of years, or join the club and get instant exposure. Like the AAA automobile club or AARP, the more members in the club, the greater the value became.

The benefits of joining Arianna’s legions were numerous: Posting at HuffPo offered instant reach, credentialing, and ego gratification. Make no mistake about it, these benefits were valued by contributors all along the way. (If they weren’t, then Huffington Post wouldn’t have any contributors in the first place.) In fact, these non-financial benefits have proved far more valuable to contributors than cash.

Looking back, then, it’s definitely been a win-win: Bloggers built their own value while creating value for HuffPo at the same time.  And in the AOL transaction, absolutely nothing changes that value equation retrospectively—except jealousy.

Now, on a prospective basis, the only question is whether the value received by contributors going forward will be just as great.

In terms of traffic, there’s no doubt that it will be. But the real issue is whether the HuffPo brand under AOL’s auspices will be as valuable when it comes to providing the most important of all of Huffington Post’s assets—the halo of its brand prestige. From my perspective, this remains to be seen.

And, finally, consider this: If The New York Times had acquired HuffPo, would there be a blogger revolt at all?  Absolutely not!

This highlights the greatest opportunity and the greatest risk for AOL and Arianna Huffington. If they can truly enhance the Huffington Post Media Group so that it’s an even stronger and more prestigious media destination, then their pipeline of great content will expand further, because the benefits of contributing will continue to grow. On the other hand, if the brand is diluted down to “old AOL” standards, then all will be lost.

Tim Armstrong was wise to put Arianna Huffington personally in charge of this, because the success of last week’s deal may very well hinge on her ability to promise, persuade, and deliver at a high bar. AOL will be relying on her strength of vision, her standards, and her personal brand to bolster not only the Huffington Post’s brand, but AOL’s as well.

So the real threat to Huffington Post’s contributors is not that they will be exploited; rather, it’s the potential loss of the media machine that has been promoting them for so long.

Arianna and Tim – A Media Match Made in Heaven?

Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, has rebooted AOL with a talk-track of branded destinations, A-level journalism and sizzling original content; and early Monday morning, a full week before Valentine’s Day, his romantic media vision was considerably enhanced, when Arianna Huffington announced that she was selling Huffington Post to AOL for $300 million in cash and $15 million in stock.

For the record, that’s quite a premium price – 10 x Huffington Post’s $31 million in revenues.

Despite the cost, however, Armstrong is a very lucky man, and he received a wonderful gift from Huffington, whose hugely successful and much-talked-about Web site is a perfect match that helps “complete” AOL.

Indeed, the relationship between Armstrong and Huffington comes not a minute too soon for AOL, which is finally bringing on real creative assets and talent – including Arianna Huffington, herself, as chief editorial taste-maker.

To be honest, the media industry has been wondering whether Armstrong could actually pull off a deal like this. (True Confession: I’ve been among the doubters.)

And there’s good reason for the skepticism.

The problem, in large part, has been strategic. Since he assumed the CEO’s post, Armstrong has talked with clarity about his vision for an AOL made up of destination media brands, the way Time Inc. and Conde Nast have built their portfolios.  But to date, his build-out of this city on a hill has fallen short. Instead of buildings gilded with leading journalism that attracts fame and eyeballs, his properties have largely been constructed by plumbers and mechanics laying a foundation for search engine rankings.

That’s why AOL’s recently leaked master plan, “The AOL Way,” is heavily oriented toward users’ search queries.  The playbook emphasizes volume of content, page-views per post, and production cost per-piece.  And, while “The AOL Way” is punctuated by periodic reminders like “quality content at scale,” the reader of the plan is left with the distinct impression that quality is a guardrail, not a compass direction for the journey to ROI nirvana.

Indeed, without a voice or a purpose other than page-views, “The AOL Way” comes off as soulless. Instead of emphasizing audience interests, an editorial point of view, or premium differentiation, it’s a volume strategy: the plan calls for the number of stories to jump from 33,000 to 55,000 a month; with median performance to go from 1,512 page-views per article to 7,000 within the quarter; all while gross margins rocket from 35 percent to 50 percent.

This Google-ingratiating strategy, at least from my perspective, is wrong-headed and short-sighted.  It doesn’t do anything to help build a unique and long-lasting brand that is meaningful for audiences.  And, as a result, it does very little to encourage people to eagerly and voluntarily type “AOL.com” into their browser’s destination bar.  With this playbook, consumers don’t go to AOL; they merely end up there.

There’s a solid lesson here for all of us.

AOL – like everybody else in the media business – is clearly jealous of Facebook’s gravity-defying results.  But it takes time for a proper media brand to achieve such stratospheric numbers.  The great brands – The New York Times, ESPN, CNN, Wall Street Journal – have shown us that you build audience loyalty one positive interaction, one ambitious story, and one rich consumer experience at a time.  To be sure, Huffington Post has shown us that, building its audience to a reported 25 million uniques over a well-paced five years.

So, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen if you’re just playing for quick search engine results.

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see whether Huffington – a savvy and independent thought leader who has always leaned forward – chooses to embrace “The AOL Way.”

My sense is that she will continue to follow her well-honed consumer-focused instincts instead.  She brings a strong point of view, a decidedly human nose for news, and a variety of social strategies for distribution – not to mention her considerable star power.  And that’s a good thing for AOL.

It’s important to recognize Armstrong’s considerable achievements.  He saw that AOL’s subscription model was a non-starter; he chose areas of core content concentration for AOL; and, unlike Yahoo!, for example, he pared AOL’s portfolio quite dramatically.

But the pre-Valentine’s Day courtship and consummation with Huffington will mean very little in the consumer marketplace if Armstrong doesn’t get rid of his seemingly unshakable Google obsession – and very soon.

Here’s hoping that Arianna can help nurture Tim’s AOL, and turn it into a true media destination.

What Happens When Blogs Grow Up

Toward the end of a post at Reuters about a change to its RSS feed content, Felix Salmon notes that Gawker seems to be making a move “away from being a big blog and towards competing directly with the likes of nytimes.com for serious online traffic.” He further predicts (and got Gawker owner Nick Denton to confirm) that the next step would be “to rejigger the home pages” of his blogs towards an edited format.

While Salmon calls this the beginning of the end of an era, that period that it marks the end of (for Gawker) is called “childhood.”

The blog is the microwave oven of the publishing kitchen:  it’s fast, convenient, and gets ideas heated up and out on the table quickly–without a lot of deliberation, mess or hassle.  A blog is a fantastic toolset for anyone who wants to get a site started quickly and publish with ease.

But it’s no surprise that when a publisher gets serious, it brings bigger appliances to bear.  Publishing done right creates experiences for readers.  The format of sequential entries is simplistic.  For any publication to get successful with a broader audience, it’s only natural that it must present not just a series of stories but a point of view on what’s important.  As Gawker’s traffic ambitions and business sophistication grow, so must its  presentation of itself to its audiences.

In this case, the surprise is not that publishers like Gakwer will grow up and out of the blog format:  the surprise is that this format has done so well for them for so long.